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Thursday, February 16, 2006 

Ned's Wager

One of the hardest things about losing your faith is adjusting yourself to your new world. A lot of the old assumptions no longer hold true, and it can be quite disorienting.

For example, being a know-it-all type person, I've always found comfort in thinking that all of life's mysteries would be revealed to us after death. We'd know who shot JFK, which sibling tattled on us, and whether Ben Roethlisburger really broke the plane of the goal line. But if there is no God, there are no answers. The secrets of our world have passed into oblivion, and will never be known. There is something depressing about that. I'll never be able to read the lost plays of Sophocles or know just what burned up in the library at Alexandria. The Dark Ages will always be dark. It's stupid and geeky, I know, but oh how I wish there was an absolute knowable truth.

The worst thing about my new world is the lack of justice. There is no reward for good deeds or suffering, and there is no penalty for evil. Victims of tragedy have that tragedy multiplied several times over by the fact that they will never receive justice or comfort, just oblivion. The tragedy is that no one will ever make up the difference for all our wrongs. We have to do the best we can on our own, because no magical accountant can come and level our balance sheets.

For this reason, I think I am more attuned to the everyday tragedies since the loss of my faith. It is far too easy to rationalize things away, saying, "God will fix everything in the end." Some people may find hope in an eternal perspective, but I find it repellant. Repellant because people are risking their real present happiness for an amorphous and uncertain future. I respect people who have faith; I find it difficult to accord the same feeling to those who are certain.

I think it is almost arrogant, this feeling that I know that everything will work out in the end, so be quiet and stop complaining. This is an attitude that can turn people off of religion in general. I am 99% certain of my point-of-view and you are 99% certain of yours. One of us is wrong. It could be me. I doubt it, but it could be. It kills me when people are forced to sacrifice their happiness for blithe assurances of the eternities. One of the doctrines I dislike most is that this life is just a short interval in our eternal progression. The implication is that this life is just a burden to be borne, one long temptation to be avoided. Keep your head down and don't look to the sides, or you'll screw up not just your life, but your eternities. How noxious an idea! Turning our brief, miraculous consciousness into a degradation and humiliation to be endured.

To me that is real tragedy. To live your life in constant fear of destroying your eternity. I refuse to believe it. Everyone is familiar with Pascal's Wager. It goes, if I believe in God and he exists, then I will be rewarded. If I believe and he doesn't exist, I won't have lost anything, so I might as well believe.

I propose Ned's Wager: If we warp our lives to conform to what we perceive to be God's will and we're wrong, and he doesn't exist, then we've squandered our entire life. Our complete eternity if you will.

If I am wrong, and an all-powerful God does exist, then he has some questions to answer. I can't believe that he will punish me for being sincere, for being concerned about others' and my happiness.

I will not waste my time on things that make me unhappy. That's a gamble I'm willing to make.


Posted by Ned Flanders.

Just to clarify something: I have had conversations recently in the bloggernacle about using the words "know" and "knowledge" to describe people's beliefs. I want to stress that although I find it off-putting to term your beliefs as knowledge, it is certainly NOT what I was referring to in the part of the post about certainty.

I was referring to people who casually dismiss others' concerns by saying "God will take care of everything."

Very nice, Ned. I'm not sure I have anything to add.

I like Ned's Wager more than Pascal's. I think the best we can so is stay true to ourselves and do what we think is the right thing to do.

So, like D, nothing to add. Ü

I've drawn different conclusions.

Looking at it objectively, I think my life has been better for religious observance, even if there is no God and no Heaven.

But I will agree that the dismissive attitude of unbelief taken by many believers isn't all that conducive. Many of the faithful look at "the apostates" and shake their heads. "Did these guys just take stupid pills?" they wonder. How can the unbelievers miss something so obvious?

This isn't really helpful and I've been as guilty of it as any in the past.

No, the Gospel is not "obvious."

That doesn't mean it isn't true, but it isn't easy, and it isn't obvious. I'd like to give "the unbelievers" a little more credit than that (although some of them are, no doubt, blathering idiots).

I simply ask that the believers get their own share of respect from the other side as well.

Why do you make the assumption that people that attempt to live the gospel are living out miserable lives? I seem to observe every bit as much, and perhaps with my bias, much more suffering in life outside the gospel of Christ than inside of it. I feel that my attempts to live the gospel has helped me avoid many pitfalls in life, and that I am really not sacrificing all that much in doing so.

Yep, I'm with Eric. I'm not so sure I'm missing out on anything (maybe a little wine, a little promiscuous sex, 10% of my income, Sunday mornings, etc). I'm not aware of any other set of teachings/beliefs that teach a person how to become a better person that is better than ours. The kind of person that I want to someday be is the kind of person that living the principles of the gospel will make me.

Of course, this is easy to say because I'm not gay, black, or a woman but that's a separate conversation about doctrine/culture and about the Church's spiritual/doctrinal/cultural evolution/improvement.

Anonymous and Eric said pretty much what I was thinking. What if religious belief and religious observance are a source of happiness for believers? What if belief leads people to have peace, to take comfort in an assurance of ultimate justice, to have a sense of purpose, and, especially, to forgo personal gratification for the sake of helping others? That wouldn't make religion true, but it would absolutely make it worthwhile, even if believers are deluded and blind.

The implication is that this life is just a burden to be borne, one long temptation to be avoided. Keep your head down and don't look to the sides, or you'll screw up not just your life, but your eternities. How noxious an idea! Turning our brief, miraculous consciousness into a degradation and humiliation to be endured.

To me that is real tragedy. To live your life in constant fear of destroying your eternity. I refuse to believe it.


Flanders, is that really how you view Mormonism? If so, I don't blame you for opting out, but I do wish you could have been granted some of the grace and hope while you were around.

Repellant because people are risking their real present happiness for an amorphous and uncertain future.

Ned, that is what grown-ups do, in almost all situations.

Thanks Ned, your thoughts are much like my own. I'm pretty much the same Mormon woman I was, minus the guilt and the control and the hours of meetings...and I'm happy now. It's made all the difference, from enduring this life, to enjoying it.

"maybe a little wine, a little promiscuous sex, 10% of my income, Sunday mornings, etc"

Okay, there goes about half of what makes life worth living...
;)

I'm with Ned.

Until I find a lifestyle that makes me feel as happy and satisfied - I choose to opt out of the whole church thing.

In the event that I'm wrong, maybe God can explain to me why He would have made me come to all the wrong conclusions.

I'll take that wager, and I'll raise you the chance at an entire life you've missed out on...

=)

Wow, Ned. Your post really stuck a chord with me. For most of my life, I believed that it was worth it to be lonely than to be with someone who wasn't Mormon, and that I would be rewarded in the eternities for my sacrifice. Eight years ago, I changed my mind. I opened my mind, my heart and my spirit and found the true love of my life, who isn't Mormon and who never will be. I'm happier now than I have ever been. Will I be punished for not making the sacrifce in this life? I hope God doesn't work that way. I really do believe what Nephi said. God wants us to have joy. And I truly believe he wants us to have it in this life, as well as the next. I think it was a tragedy that I spent my 20's believing that no man who wasn't a Mormon wasn't good enough, and that God would make it right in the end.

Ned, imagine a father whose only child is murdered by some psychopath. Said psychopath avoids justice in this life due to some legal loop hole. The father with a faith in God's justice get's over the tragedy believing in the end the murderer gets his just rewards, and enjoys the rest of his life to the extent possible. The father without faith has only vengeance on his mind and dies a bitter man. God or no God, who leads the happier life?

Repellant because people are risking their real present happiness for an amorphous and uncertain future.

Ned, that is what grown-ups do, in almost all situations.


No, there's a significant difference between what Ned describes and what grown-ups do.

Grown-ups do things like go to work everyday and stick to a budget. Yeah, they might not live to retirement age to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor. But actuaries can calculate the odds of that, and grown-ups can plan accordingly.

Who can calculate the odds of God actually conditioning entrance to His presence on wearing a headscarf, or being circumcised, or observing some other religious practice? That's an entirely different level of amorphousness and uncertainty.

Ned, I have many similar sentiments. It's nice to hear other people out there voice them. It's hard to say these things in the open (for me at least).

Anonymous said:
"Ned, imagine a father whose only child is murdered by some psychopath. Said psychopath avoids justice in this life due to some legal loop hole. . ."

Your premise that if a person does not believe in god then their only possible choice is a life of bitterness doesn't work for me.

How about a father who may not believe in god but lives a life of love and compassion. When the son is killed, father tries to understand the killer. Once he sees the circumstances that brought the killer to such an action he feels compassion for him and fully forgives. That option sounds even better to me than the believer who is pacified not because he forgives, but because the "psychopath" will get what's coming to him in the next life.

I don't know anything, so I hope you're right, Ned. I hope you're right.

I agree with Amy's post, but hypothetically tragic situations are just cheap and easy ways of making an argument. They don't wash with me, period.

AmyB,
while clearly your example is the ideal and my example is an extreme, in my experience (limited though that may be) with believers and non-believers, I find that tragedy leaves non-believers more bitter - generally speaking. I say this while totally agreeing with Ned that we shouldn't ever belittle somebody's grief by saying 'it'll all work out in the end' regardless of their beliefs.

Sorry, I don't know if my last comment appeared. AmyB, clearly your example is best case scenario and mine is an extreme example, but what I was trying to say is that in my experience tragedy generally leaves those without a faith in God more bitter than those with. While I say that I totally agree with Ned that regardless of anyone's beliefs we should never belittle somebody's grief with phrases like 'it'll all be okay in the end'.

This is an interesting post and I absolutely agree that you shouldn't waste your time with things that make you unhappy.

But, I don't understand what we squander by trying to follow God's will. Even if God doesn't exist.

If we warp our lives in a way that squanders our lives then they are squandered whether or not God exists.

Being part of the Mormon church gives my family a spiritual community and helps me (and my children) feel God's love more fully. I'd walk away if it made me unhappy, but it doesn't.

I hope you find what makes you happy.

Describing your longtime desire to find out all the answers to puzzling questions in the next world reminded me of a quote from a book of poems by Howard Nemerov, which I've long treasured:

According to our tradition, when a man dies there comes to him the Angel, who says: "Now I will tell you the secret of life and the meaning of the universe." One man to whom this happened said: "Take off, grey Angel. Where were you when I needed you?" Among all the hosts of the dead he is the only one who does not know the secret of life and the meaning of the universe; whence he is held in superstitious veneration by the rest.

Thanks for everyone's comments. I am a first time reader here.I think that many people still see things in black and white...either I will be happy in the LDS church, or unhappy as an appostate,or the reverse. The church has brought me much joy and much grief in my life. It's a great way of life, but as a convert,it has isolated much of my non lds family and made some of my children who have exercised their free agency not to believe, feel separated. I have never seen a church that believes in family togetherness be so separating. I also have seen wonderful family unity in non member families who also believe in Christ's gospel,but not the Mormon church. Values,ethics and decency don't just come from religion. You'd be surprised how well you would do without the church telling you what to do.

So, I'm a new blogger, so I apologize if my lack of experience in this whole thing shows like a coffee stain on a sacrament tablecloth.

But it seems like motivating yourself with personal gain of one kind or another misses the whole point of the gospel. How am I most happy? Livin' it up now or gettin' good and blessed later? I've got to believe that although we frame our mortal goals in terms of happiness, there is a much more complex purpose and happiness that isn't really understandable in mortality. When we seek to aim our behaviors at the greatest perceived mortal good: "happiness!" then we are missing the point that God requires us to have faith because he knows what's worthwhile in the end and how to get it and we don't.

It seems to me he's made His expectations clear in that regard, and there's a whole universe of non-negotiable fact that you live within and it ain't going to change because your intentions were good, or your heart was in the right place. If God says here's the way back to me and he's telling the truth, then all these comments that "God isn't going to hold it against me because..." are just sophistry and the kind of deception that the scriptures warn against.

"Eat, drink, and be merry" and Ned's Wager don't have many substantial differences. It's just how you want to define happiness: your way or God's way.

Excellent, love it!
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This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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